That Maïna marks out a First Nations story without the presence of Europeans is a rare feat for cinema—even Canadian cinema. Set a few hundred years ago, it follows the daughter of an Innu chief as she attempts to rescue a boy stolen from her community by the Inuit after the two peoples battle. But director Michel Poulette stresses that it’s story goes beyond that: there’s never been a film made with these particular two peoples interacting.
“Never. Never in the same movie, at the same time,” he says, over the phone from Montréal. “Most of the movies we have about this area are always movies about white men coming in. And it’s always the beginning of a lot of trouble.”
The absence of Europeans in the film, Poulette notes, offers a perspective that doesn’t get filtered through our usual prejudices and histories.
“The thing is, we already have our opinion about the arrival of Europeans,” he says. “And even if we try to make it a little bit different about what it was, every moment that you will start a fight between the two will remind the audience what they know, and what they’ve been told for years, about violence between European and First Nations.”
“The subject that was interesting for me, in the story, was the fear of other,” Poulette adds. “I think it was great to show it with two peoples that didn’t know each other. Even if they weren’t living so far from each other, they looked like two planets meeting.”
But to make his movie, Poulette had to wait. Maïna—based on the like-titled novel by Quebec author Dominique Demers—was first pitched to him as a mini-series. He said he’d prefer to make it a film, and was originally OK’d to do a version of that script, though those who owned the rights changed their minds during the process—the company wanted a mini-series, and weren’t willing to bend.
“And the next two years, I was haunted by that project,” he recalls. “Always thinking about it.”
Eventually, Poulette called up an editor to see if the rights were free. They were; he took out an option, and got his film made, which won a swath of accolades from the 2013 American Indian Film Festival, including Best Picture.
There’s funding in Maïna from both the Innu and Inuit communities, though Poulette notes he had to ensure that both groups knew his film wasn’t going to lose its narrative edge because of their involvement. There would still be villains.
“One day, I organized a table to read the script together,” he recalls. “I had about 10 people around the table. And when I start talking about the bad guy, the people from the Innu tribe said, ‘Well, you know, there’s no people like that in our community. Violent people and all that.’ And one guy was there—because I had a lot of consultants there—he was a very well-known musician. And he starts laughing, and he told everybody else, ‘OK, I know one of him in each of our tribes. Give me one tribe, and I will give you one name.’ Everybody started laughing, and said, ‘OK, we understand.’ They didn’t oppose.”
Directed by Michel Poulette